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3:AM Cult Hero: Joseph Mitchell


When Harold Ross began his magazine The New Yorker, he read every manuscript sent to him. “[He] didn’t waste much time trying to corral ’emerged writers,” E. B. White told the Paris Review, “He was looking for the ones that were found by turning over a stone.” All too often, Ross and his successor William Shawn found great writers while they were writing newspaper features. One of them was an experienced reporter and occasional shipmate from Fairmount, North Carolina named Joseph Mitchell.

Mitchell had grown up on his grandparents’ tobacco farm. He wrote for a newspaper in Durham and a feature on a tobacco auction caught the attention of an editor in New York and he moved there.

He worked as a feature writer for several newspapers for the next nine years. He wrote beautiful stories about the city and the characters who inhabited it. Many of them were later collected in My Ears Are Bent. The best known of these are his stories about the fish markets in lower Manhattan.

These stories caught the eye of Ross and he was brought in to the New Yorker in 1938 – the same year My Ears Are Bent was published. He continued writing beautiful vignettes on the city and its characters, though in a more intimate and stylish manner. These were collected in McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon.

In 1942 he wrote a profile of Joe Gould, a bohemian in Greenwich Village who supposedly collected an oral history consisting of 20,000 conversations in notebooks that when stacked up would tower over Gould. They contained conversations with bohemians, sailors, poets aristocrats and other people Gould knew (E. E. Cummings wrote poems about Gould). And he carried some them in a paper bag he always had with him.

In 1965, Mitchell wrote a second profile of Gould which revealed his secret: His oral history didn’t exist. Gould’s notebooks were filled with ramblings on his father. And the paper bag he always had at his side didn’t have notebooks in it, but only other paper bags.

That profile would be the last work Mitchell would publish in his lifetime. He served on the Landmarks Preservation Committee of New York and helped in other causes, and he still showed up for work at the New Yorker, but not a word appeared in print. Devotees who interviewed him later wondered if he was writing another masterpiece. It turned out he was suffering from writers’ block himself, and that he had chosen Joe Gould as a subject not knowing that he had chosen a subject so much like himself.

But William Shawn kept him on, and when he passed the torch in 1987, his successors kept Mitchell on until his death in 1996.

Further: Bio: North Carolina Writers Network / ‘The Old Man and the Seafood’ by Thomas Beller, Village Voice Apr. 26, 2005 / ‘Journeys with Joseph Mitchell’ by William Zinsser, The American Scholar, Winter 1993 / Obituary: The Independent, Associated Press / ‘Joseph Mitchell’s True Facts’ from the Economist / ‘The City Concealed: Up in the Fulton Ferry Hotel’, a look at the hotel of Mitchell’s story ‘Up in the Old Hotel’ made by WNET / Stanley Tucci and Susan Sarandon on Tucci’s film Joe Gould’s Secret on Charlie Rose, Apr. 11, 2000; contains a clip of a 1992 interview Rose did with Mitchell, discussion begins at 21:00 / David Remnick and Roger Angell remember Mitchell on Charlie Rose, June 6, 1996 / 3:AM Cult Hero: Joe Gould.

First posted: Sunday, March 13th, 2011.

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